Thomas A. Sebeok: "The Sign Science and the Life Science"


Ten years ago, I noted a libration in the annals of semiotic inquiry between two seemingly antithetical tendencies: a major tradition, in which semiosis is taken to be a steadfast, indeed bedrock, hallmark of life; and a minor, predominantly glottocentric trend, in which semiosis is tied to human existence alone. As a matter of personal conviction, I then declared myself in the former camp, stating that "the scope of semiotics encompasses the whole of the oikoumene, the entirety of our planetary biosphere," adding that semiosis "must be recognized as a pervasive fact of nature as well as of culture" (Sebeok 1977:180-183). In what follows, I propose to explore this claim further.

I begin with two interlinked queries: what is semiosis (or, as Peirce sometimes put it [5-4731, semeiosy); and what is life?

Peirce adapted the designation "semiosis" (in a variant transcription) from Philodemus's fragmentary Herculanean papyrus On Signs, where the Greek equivalent occurs at least thirty times (1978:140, to represent a type of reasoning or inference from signs. He endowed the term with a definition of his own as an action, or influence, "which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs" (1935-1966:5.484). The "action of a sign" is the semiotic function that sets an inferential process in motion.

Morris gave a somewhat different definition of semiosis, as a sign process, "that is, a process in which something is a sign to some organism (1971:366). His precept gives ample scope for pinpointing the locus where the process takes place, to wit, in anything alive. It follows that the notion of semiosis is yoked to the notion of animate existence and, as a corollary, that there could have been no semiosis before the appearance of life in the universe (or, for all practical purposes, the emergence of terrestrial life).

This leads to the second query, cogently formulated and addressed in Schroedinger's path-breaking book (1946), What Is Life? Elsewhere (see above, Ch. 10) I had occasion to raise this same question, taking Schroedinger's discussion as my lodestar, but also taking duly into account Pirie's strictures (1937), according to which __ especially considering borderline phenomena between the inanimate and the animate __ such an inquiry may not even serve a useful purpose. The crux of Schrodinger's classic formulation has to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, particularly with the principle of negative entropy, which is often, if hitherto far from satisfactorily, coupled with a notion of information (more accurately, the lack of it) about the statistical structure of a semiotic system (cf., for example, Brillouin 1950). In any event, Schrodinger's discussion points to the salience of semiotics in the understanding of life processes; or, as Wiener put it (1950:21) __ keeping the common opinion in mind that the subject matter of semiotics is the exchange of messages (that is, time series) __ the amount of information is a measure "of the degree of order which is peculiarly associated with those patterns which are distributed as messages in time."

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AS/SA Nº 6/7, Article 5 : Page 2 / 8

© 1999, AS/SA

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